Follow the brown signs
Gosh, I never knew that!
The name for someone who studies or enjoys spotting butterflies and moths is a lepidopterist. Vladimir Nabokov was one, he once wrote: “Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime – but I never expected it to be a source of income… I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum” (From Nabakov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates)
A little bit of history
During the post-renaissance period of the mid 1700s interest in the sciences and the natural world boomed and it was at this time that the study and collection of butterflies and moths began being documented and recorded formally (usually in huge sketch books with intricate detail). During this world changing time the insatiable appetite for discovery and exploration of the four corners of the globe (including the colonisation of as much of it as possible!) was well and truly whetted and the exotic and intriguing creatures that started being brought back to European shores kick started a fashion for collecting and displaying butterflies which hit it’s peak in Victorian Britain in the late 1800s.
Some of the stories of the early butterfly collectors are absolutely fascinating. I am always so inspired by people who have the desire to learn and further our knowledge about the world against all odds, and people who do that during times when things weren’t half as easy as they are now I have even more respect for. One butterfly collection really caught my attention when I was doing my research, the record of which can still be found at The Natural History Museum in London, it’s called “A List of the Butterflies Collected by William Bonny on the Journey with Mr Stanley from Yambuya on the Aruwimi River, through the Great Forest of Central Africa with Description of Nine New Species”. The reason for the journey in itself is interesting and was made by over 700 men across Southern Africa in 1887. These men had been gathered together to rescue a British governor, Emin Pasha, from an increasingly unstable area of Equetoria (modern day southern Sudan) where the British stronghold was loosening after a rather bloody revolt by the natives against outside domination. The mission set out to rescue the British governor and bring him home. However the rescue plans were horribly ill conceived and a year later a third of the men had died from disease, starvation and exhaustion trekking with no provisions across country already ravaged by famine. The ordeal for the men must have been hideous, yet all along the way a young officer called William Bonner was collecting and recording all the butterflies he saw in this foreign and inhospitable land. He documented them in great detail, sketching them, catching them and making notes about the different species. He named all his new discoveries, poignantly in a few cases after his struggling expedition leaders. Governor Emin Pasha never did make it home and although he was eventually escorted out of Equetoria he later died by gruesome partial decapitation in Africa. The terrible loss of life and suffering that the men endured caused public outcry back in England, which made it the last mission of it’s kind and came to represent the loosening grip the British Empire had on Africa. What I find fascinating is Bonner’s dedication to his collection, despite (or maybe even because of) such hardship and life threatening conditions under which it was collected. Bonner survived the trip and finally when he died his collection was buried, rather oddly maybe but also as a mark of respect, in a military plot in Brompton Cemetery.
Over the few hundred years that followed the huge potential to not just study and enjoy but also to use and exploit the natural riches across the world was quickly realised. This, coupled with massive technical and scientific advances in agriculture and industry caused huge changes in our natural environment and now sees us living in a modern world of sprawling towns and cities with ever increasing man-made burgeons on the earth’s resources. The problem of course is that when nature sits quietly doing its thing in woodlands and oceans it doesn’t make anyone any money and the temptation to exploit it and make way for things that do has proved just too much for us humans. Unfortunately though when you don’t have to go down to the nearest river to collect your days water or rear the chicken you eat for your dinner the fundamental link between us and the fragile natural earth we live on is getting lost. The privileged lives we lead, that we take so much for granted, can threaten the future of the things we don’t see as directly affecting our lives, like wildlife and natural ecological functions which no-one really notices but are quite literally key to our survival.
Fortunately for us the rapid loss of our natural environment and specifically the decreasing insect populations in developed countries was worrying a few insightful individuals. These people saw that the permanent loss of natural environments has a far greater impact on our lives than we might think. They work against the flow of a “bigger, better, faster” global trend and are constantly trying to raise awareness of the importance of conservation and sustainable living to secure our futures on this planet. Butterflies are very important pollinators and are an integral link in our food chain, so important are they that their numbers are monitored and can used to show things like the ecological quality of a habitat or even used predict the weather, which obviously has a massive impact on us humans.
One such group of dedicated people were the people behind Butterfly Conservation, which was set up in 1968. They worked hard to bring the plight of the butterfly to the public’s attention when many species had become extinct and many more were facing the same fate. The group were passionate about what they believed to be the quickly deteriorating environmental crisis and worked tirelessly to fight it. In 1969 the Chairman, Thomas Frankland, even publicly attacked Mick Jagger in The Times after the band released over three and a half thousand white butterflies on stage at a gig in Hyde Park as an ode to the recently overdosed and departed Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. It turned out afterwards that most of the butterflies were already dead on release and those that were still alive stood little chance of survival in the centre of a metropolis. Frankland openly challenged Mr Jagger to buy and donate as many butterflies again and “entrust them to my Society so that they can be released throughout Britain to give pleasure to many who are saddened by the disappearance of butterflies”.
I was moved by Mr Frankland’s words and did a little research in the hope of finding the actual newsreel of the Rolling Stones gig, and I did! You can clearly see the masses of dead butterflies on the stage after their rather violent release (also note the hilariously posh broadcaster’s appreciation failure of the Rolling Stones and all their fans).
The tireless campaigning of groups like Butterfly Conservation has helped renew the public’s interest in the countryside and natural surroundings which can only be a good thing for the future of British wildlife and frankly the human race. There are now around 20 butterfly farms across Britain and all are run by dedicated and inspiring lepidopterists who go a long way to educating us about just how important it is to care for and conserve our butterflies and natural surroundings. There’s no doubt that hands on experiences are the best way to open people’s eyes and encourage understanding by doing something real for ourselves, and butterfly farms are brilliant places to get just that. There’s nothing quite like stepping through some thick plastic curtains into a humid tropical paradise where huge multicoloured butterflies flit quietly around you or when you can sit peacefully in a specially planted up meadow watching a little Common Blue or Red Admiral feed. Appreciating butterflies and indeed all the natural things around us is just so important for our understanding of this fragile planet and our inextricable link to it.
Organisations, official bodies and great links to places where you can find out more
UK Butterflies – This website provides information on all the butterflies that can be found in the British Isles, and I really mean information. If you’ve been inspired after a visit to a butterfly farm then this is the first place to start browsing when you get home…
Butterfly Conservation– “Conserving butterflies, moths and the environment”. This organisation was set up by the dedicated little group of naturalists who saw that loss of natural habitats for the fragile butterfly and moth population meant trouble. No longer a small 3 man band this organisation is the last word on everything butterfly.
Lepidipterist.org – This site has links to collections, photos, films, societies and loads of other information on butterflies and moths to get the nearly interested very interested.
The Butterfly World Project – Dreamt up by a man who has dedicated his life to the study of butterflies, Clive Farrell, this is a butterfly experience beyond anything you could ever imagine, incorporating art, sculpture and ideas that fuse together to make this place truly amazing. I loved it there so this is an unashamed plug.
Books, Bravado and Butterflies: Tales from The Natural History Museum – This fascinating PDF is written by Phil Ackery who worked with the NHM’s collection of over 3 million butterflies for 30 years. This piece highlights the highly persoanl stories and events that allowed such a huge and amazing collection to exist.
Butterfly Farms across Britain[geo_mashup_map map_cat=”16″ height=”600″ width=”600″ zoom=”6″ add_overview_control=”false” add_map_type_control=”false” auto_info_open=”false”]